Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

NOMA - ¿No va?

Some of my friends have recently gotten into a bit of an discussion over S. J. Gould’s proposal that science and religion ought to be considered non-overlapping magisteria (oddly dubbed ‘NOMA’ for the sake of brevity). Essentially, this model states that science should stick to empirical questions of fact, while religion may be left to deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. I contend that the model consists of four distinct propositions, some of which are more controversial than others.

1) Scientists should address themselves to empirical questions of fact, so long as they claim to be doing science.

2) Scientists should not address questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, so long as they claim to be doing science.

3) Religious leaders should not address empirical questions of fact, when acting in their capacity as people of faith.

4) Religious leaders should address themselves to questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, so long as they are acting as people of faith.

The reason these propositions are somewhat carefully circumscribed is that many people are both scientists and people of faith. Some biologists go home from the lab on Saturday and lead Sunday School classes the following morning, while the Vatican famously employs astronomer-priests to study how the heavens go rather than how to go to heaven.

A few caveats before moving forward. Firstly, it is important to notice that this model more prescriptive than descriptive. Gould was well aware of the fundamentalist resurgence against science, aimed primarily at his own field, and he spilled vats of ink working tirelessly against this phenomenon. So, it must be assumed that the advocate of NOMA is not saying that science and religion do not in fact overlap, but rather that we would be better off if they did not. Sort of an epistemological “good fences, good neighbors” policy between these two fields. Secondly, it is vital to note that NOMA only addresses the ideal relationship between the human endeavors of empirical science and religion. It says nothing about other fields of study such as historical exegesis, politics, economics, aesthetics, philosophy, etcetera. It may be that some of these fields necessary overlap with either science or religion, or both, but NOMA does not address this problem. Finally, it is important to note that NOMA is not necessarily an idealized end game. It may well be that I’d much rather my cranky preachy neighbor sold his home and moved away, but for now the best I can do is to extend and augment our mutual fence.

With all these caveats in mind, then, what of the four propositions themselves? I consider the first and fourth claims relatively uncontroversial, because they are basically saying that scientific and religious people should pursue their chosen specialties. So long as both fields of endeavor continue to coexist, their practitioners will address themselves to their respective fields of study, which are aptly described and empirical research on the one hand and questions of ultimate meaning on the other. Some will no doubt object that ethics are far too important to be left to people of faith, and should be carefully studied and skillfully debated by ethicists and philosophers. I have no problem with this, and would merely point out that the NOMA paradigm does not address itself to ethicists and philosophers. Such fellows can knock up my religious neighbor all they like and attempt to engage in lengthy discussions with him, without violating the NOMA principle, although I doubt they will be cordially invited in for tea.

The third proposition essentially states that we should not take something on faith which can be readily tested, for example, claims about the age of the Earth or the origin of species. Those who object to this principle are unwilling to consider evidence when they have presupposed the truth of faith-based propositions, and thus are not worth engaging in dialogue. No amount of logic and reason will avail against one who rejects both.

This leaves only the second and arguably most controversial principle, that scientists should refrain from claiming that science provides answers to questions of ultimate meaning and moral values. There are actually two distinct questions here: “Can science provide ultimate meaning?” and “Can science provide moral values?” Personally, I take the view that all meaning and purposes are proximate rather than ultimate (as Gould himself intimates towards the end of his original essay with his ‘cold bath’ theory of nature) and thus the NOMA model graciously grants religious figures his blessing to muck about with naught but an imaginary category. I’m unsure what the implications of this practice might be, except to say that is it probably harmless unless combined with harmful moral principles, e.g. “Your ultimate purpose is to please Elohim/Allah/God, and He has commanded you to take over a given patch of land by any means necessary.” The NOMA advocate does not say that such nonsense cannot be vigorously refuted, but merely that it cannot be addressed using the hypothetico-deductive method.

As to the formulation of moral values themselves, that may be the ultimate sticky wicket. To those who adhere to the idea of an ‘is-ought gap’ and assert that we should mind the gap, it seems clear enough that science can only address questions of what is rather than how things ought to be. It can tell us how to prevent HIV infections, but it cannot tell us why we should do so. To do that, we have to draw on inherent values such as love of health and empathy for others. There are some who claim that our values should be deduced from facts about the world, but I’ve not yet seen one of them make a persuasive case. I’ll try to keep my eyes and mind open for a good argument to that effect, however.